Rev. Teri Peterson
What Would Jesus Do?
9 April 2017, NL3-31, Palm Sunday (are you all in?)
Today’s scripture reading is from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 19, beginning at verse 29, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
For many weeks now, we have been walking with Jesus as he set his face toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem was, and still is, the most important city for the Jews. It was home to around 500,000 people, contained palaces for the king and for the Roman officials who might need to visit to keep order, and of course the Temple was there, at the city’s highest point. Jerusalem is so important that one always goes “up” to Jerusalem, and “down” from Jerusalem, no matter the direction one is traveling. In today’s reading we find Jesus east of the city, approaching the Mount of Olives (which is of similar elevation as the Temple Mount), on his way up to Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly ministry.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’
Try for a moment to picture the scene of that first Palm Sunday, as Luke tells it. What do you notice happening? (multitude of disciples…no Hosannas, no palms…stones shouting out…praising God for all the deeds of power they had seen)
The last parade I attended was the Cubs World Series victory parade—which was amazing, with energy and cheering and singing. My friends and I made early morning guesses about how many times we would hear the song “Go Cubs Go” and then we kept a count throughout the day. There were throngs of people, and they really did seemingly spontaneously burst into song.
Palm Sunday wasn’t exactly a victory parade, though. The Roman empire was well known for victory marches, and some scholars even say that it’s likely Pilate arrived in Jerusalem with a show of strength around the same time Jesus arrived riding on a donkey. The Palm Sunday procession was more of a protest march than a victory parade, intentionally different from what Pilate or the Emperor would have done. So I think back to protests I’ve attended over the years—to the women’s march a few months ago, for instance—and how multitudes of people moved through the streets, sometimes chanting rhymes that became something of a mantra, and sometimes just chatting to each other along the way about things that are important enough to draw us out of our comfortable beds and into the crowded streets.
Each of those experiences in the streets of Chicago were very different. The atmosphere and the sense of purpose in the group were clear both times, one a long-awaited celebration, the other a day of passionate concern.
Twice, I have visited Jerusalem and walked the path down from the Mount of Olives, and up to Jerusalem and its Temple. Both times, I happened to walk that street right behind a large group of Israeli soldiers, in army uniforms and carrying large weapons. To say it was jarring to read the story of the Prince of Peace while walking behind a dozen rifle-carrying soldiers would be an understatement. That’s now the image I have in my mind when I picture the scene…and I wonder what would have happened, if those who ordered Jesus to silence his disciples had that kind of backup when he refused.
Everyone in the city would have known what they were seeing. From the very beginning, Jesus has said that today, in our hearing, while we are together in his presence, scripture is being fulfilled. He found a donkey colt and so even more scripture was fulfilled—that the Messiah would enter the holy city riding on a donkey. People around him were chanting and singing “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” and talking about all the miracles and healings and teaching he had done. No one could have missed the meaning behind this protest, especially at a time when the Empire was sweeping into the city with their own display of power and might, their own understanding of keeping the peace.
So the Pharisees ordered him to stop it. It’s dangerous to be part of a crowd in these days, and this crowd looks an awful lot like treason, with words like “peace” and “king” ringing off the stone walls of the city. But Jesus knows there is no way to stop the good news, because God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. God’s voice will be heard, even if the stones themselves have to do the shouting. The ground itself cries out for justice and for peace, for an end to bloodshed and fear, for a world of hope and love, where scripture is fulfilled and the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the poor are lifted up in the year of jubilee.
Jesus knows that the power of the Empire is the power of violence, which relies on silencing the voices of the other—voices of the oppressed, voices of dissent, voices of pain or grief. That was never more true than in the act of crucifixion—a torture designed to be so shameful that the one facing it would be left to decompose and his family would never speak of him again. Crosses lined the roads of the Roman Empire, testament to the power of violence.
But Jesus refused to give violence that power. Even if everyone else’s voice is cut off, God’s will still speak—through stones if necessary.
And Jesus knows it will be necessary. He knows the day is coming when even his most fervent supporters and closest disciples will fall silent under the weight of fear and betrayal. He sees that so many of us will choose being peace lovers rather than peace makers, as the quote on the bulletin says. We will say the words, but we can’t seem to see our way to the work of peace. We too fall silent, for many personal reasons ranging from party loyalty to fear of retribution to belief that we can’t make a difference and everything in between, and our silence is what gives the empire its power to enforce its own version of peace through violence.
And Jesus wept over Jerusalem, looking across the valley at the Temple, at the thousands of residents and pilgrims, at the multitudes of disciples cheering around him and the Pharisees with their angry and scared faces… “if you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.” If only we could see what Jesus sees, and understand his teaching and his life and his path…if only we could walk the way, the truth, and the life.
I can imagine Jesus’ tear-streaked face today, looking across the world at all the ways we have openly decided not to care for each other, the ways we have made war as if it will lead to peace, the ways we have believed that peace can exist without justice or hope, the ways we have turned inward seeking our own security and left God’s creation and God’s children to fend for themselves. God’s heart breaks in Syria, in Yemen, in the Sudan, in Palestine, in Colombia, in Mexico, in the halls of our shockingly segregated schools and prisons, in Egypt. I hear Jesus’ voice, thick with emotion and maybe shaking a little with sobs: “if you had only recognized the things that make for peace.” And I think of all the pretty words I’ve said, the hymns we sing and the token offerings we make, and I wonder: what are the things that make for real peace? What would it take for us to be peacemakers, not just peace lovers?
Kierkegaard wrote that many of us have fallen into the trap of admiring Jesus, like fans on the roadside during a parade, rather than following Jesus. We aren’t called to be just fans, like of our favorite team or band. We’re called to follow—to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, to do what he did. To be a disciple is to pattern our lives on the one we trust, not only to think his teaching is good and important. The word disciple comes from the word discipline—to follow Jesus is a discipline, a practice, of trying to be like him. Kierkegaard wrote that admirers remain detached, not seeing that the thing we admire has a claim on us, and so we fail to become like what we admire. The fan uses plenty of words about how they love and treasure Jesus and his teaching…but it never reaches beyond words. The follower, though, tries with all their heart to be like Jesus, even if that means changing behavior or activity or life.
On that first Palm Sunday, there were plenty of fans, lots of admirers. And some naysayers, of course, who were at least open about their desire to silence the living Word. The trouble is that fans want silence too, as soon as the Word begins to speak about things that challenge their own beliefs, security, or plans. They’re just sneakier about how they seek that silence, using the threat of waning popularity or safety or money as their preferred tool. Remember that even the fans mostly deserted Jesus or turned against him as that first Holy Week went on and his challenge to the government and religious leaders became more clear. But the stones will still shout, no matter how silence is achieved. God has things to say, and they are things we need to hear, to see, to recognize—about peace and justice, love and grace, hope for the future, passion for the kingdom of God to come here on earth as it is in heaven.
As we enter this holiest of weeks, I encourage you to listen for what the stones are saying. As we walk this journey to Jerusalem, consider whether we do so as fans, or as followers. As a Holy Week practice, I think we should ask ourselves frequently “what would Jesus do?” It sounds cheesy, but it is as relevant a question as ever. When reading or hearing a news story, ask “what would Jesus do?” When we see a neighbor, or a co-worker, or another driver on the expressway, ask “what would Jesus do?” When we come to church, or read our email, or get out our offering envelopes, ask “what would Jesus do?” In small moments and big decisions, there’s the question: how would Jesus see this? how would he respond? what words or feelings or actions or prayers or offering or gesture would be most like Christ?
And then…here’s the catch. Try to do what he would do. After two seasons of reading Luke’s gospel straight through, we know Jesus’ mission: to feed, to free, to heal, to lift up, and to change the system that keeps people down. This can be the day that we recognize the things that make for peace—and not just that we see them, but that we do them. We can work to make our behavior line up with the pattern he set with his life, death, and resurrection. This Holy Week we will learn yet again that violence can never drive out violence, death can never drive out death, hate can never drive out hate, apathy can never drive out apathy, fear can never drive out fear…only love can do that.
May we be all in with Jesus.